It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible

“When I read a story, I skip the explanations”

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In my review of Katherine Kurtz’s The Legacy of Lehr, a 1986 science fiction novel, for SF Mistressworks – the review will appear on Wednesday – I use the phrase “Ruritanian sf” as a description of the novel’s type of genre fiction. There is, of course, already a genre of “Ruritanian romance”, in which an invented European country is used as the setting for a swashbuckling adventure, “centred on the ruling classes, almost always aristocracy and royalty”, as Wikipedia has it. The Wikipedia entry goes on to point out that Ruritanian romances have colonised genre fiction, naming Andre Norton as an early proponent. And yet…

Fiction, especially romance, has been all too happy to use invented royal and aristocratic houses in existing countries for its stories. There’s no need to invent an entire nation. Actual literature, on the other hand, can’t seem to make up its mind – for example, the plot of Nabokov’s Pale Fire, hidden though it is, revolves around the royal house of an invented country, and Boyd’s A Good Man in Africa is set in the invented country of Kinjanja; but Greene’s The Heart of the Matter is set in… Sierra Leone. So why use an invented country? What is it about the story that it must be set in a fictional nation? The most obvious explanation appears to be that no existing nation has the characteristics required by the story, whether they are geographic, historical, or social. Which neatly leads into science fiction and “Ruritanian sf”…

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… because the settings of sf novels, especially “heartland sf”, are by definition entirely invented. They are the future, or an alien world, or an interstellar empire. But where a Ruritanian romance allows an author to tell a story that would not be plausible in a real place, Ruritanian sf allows an author to tell a story that is plausible but happens to boast an invented setting. And it does that by pretty much transposing elements of the real world into a science fiction setting. So cruise liners become spaceships, airliners becomes shuttles, assault rifles become blasters, and so on… Everything is an analogue of something in the real world with which the reader is familiar. There’s no need to explain the workings of the VanGriff Mk 29 Magnum Blaster because it works, in effect, in story terms, just like a Colt .45. There’s no need to describe the layout of a spaceship, because it uses the familiar terminology of ships that sail the oceans – bridge, cabin, engine room… (Of course, it goes without saying that real-world spacecraft are nothing like this.)

The end result is a setting built up from well-understood and commonly-accepted tropes that need no explanation, or scaffolding, in the text itself. There’s no need to explain how FTL works because it’s so prevalent in sf its effects in story terms are more important than its (invented) workings. It gets characters from A to B, where A and B are interstellar distances apart. Far too many sf tropes have become “black boxes” in this fashion. And a story which uses them uncritically, which simply slots them together like Lego, is Ruritanian sf. It’s telling a present-day story in an invented setting, but a setting that is as familiar as the reader’s world. It’s only science fiction because of the furniture and vocabulary.

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That’s the essence of Ruritanian science fiction. It is genre fiction which builds an invented setting out of elements which might as well not be invented. The labels are different but the objects are the same, or fulfil the same function. It’s not a failure of imagination, because imagination doesn’t feature in the process. And it’s only a failure of craft if the author is attempting something more than Ruritanian sf. If all they want is a science-fictional setting the reader can parse, one that’s uncoupled from the real world but close enough to it that few explanations are required, then if they’ve produced Ruritanian sf they’ve succeeded. Info-dumps are a given, but they’re usually “historical”, inasmuch as they attempt to give the invented world solidity and depth through exposition – but shifting the burden of exposition onto the setting’s own narrative only demonstrates how little exposition the tropes in the story actually need.

Needless to say, I think such forms of science fiction are low on invention and make poor use of the tools at the genre’s disposal. They can be entertaining, there’s no doubt about that; but their uncritical use of tropes, and their failure to interrogate the form, means they have little or nothing to add to the genre conversation. This doesn’t mean they can’t be commercially successful – because, after all, their chief characteristic is that they confirm readers’ prejudices (even when they seem to be challenging them – or rather, it’s the challenge itself that the reader wants). Ruritanian sf is comfort reading, it is unadventurous and unlikely to promote critical discussion.

It also forms the bulk of science fiction being published today (and yes, I’m including self-published sf).

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4 thoughts on ““When I read a story, I skip the explanations”

  1. So have I got this right? Ruritanian fiction requires the invention of a fictional country to fit geographical, historical or political circumstances of the plot or story (this is certainly the case with ‘The Prisoner of Zenda’). But Ruritanian sf differs in that (to use your own words) it “builds an invented setting out of elements which might as well not be invented”.

    Of course, Ruritanian fiction has elements which it was not necessary for the writer to invent. The relationships, settings (a hunting lodge, a cathedral, a castle), events (a kidnap, a coronation, a sword-fight, an escape) and characters (an adventurer, a King, a Usurper to the throne, a loyal lieutenant, a princess) are all real world elements which the writer did not need to invent. For me, the attraction of Ruritanian literature is a) what is the historical justification for the imaginary country? and b) what was the subsequent history of the invented country (especially if it is set in a politically and historically turbulent region, like Central Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries)? The romantic events of the novel are merely a starting point for further speculation of a counter-factual nature.

    And most Ruritanian sf, unless it is set in a wider future historical context (and sometimes not even then), lacks this perspective. Whereas Ruritanian fiction at least allows this speculation.

    • I don’t think Ruritanian romance requires an invented country, but it’s an identifying characteristic of the genre. so it will always be there. But because sf is set predominantly in invented worlds anyway, it’s the transposition of real-world elements that becomes the identifying characteristic of Ruritanian sf. And a good indicator is that exposition focuses on history, geography and politics, rather than on invented technology or science.

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